Gilbert Wilson Murals: Socialist Curriculum

Gilbert Wilson’s “Machinery” or “Liberation” mural can be seen as a visual ode to his muse, Dr. Fred Donaghy, superimposed on an anti-industrial theme, Neither aspect of the work seems organic to its placement on the walls of what was, in 1935, Terre Haute’s newest junior high school.

Wilson had several causes to support, injustices to draw attention to, and inspirational figures to immortalize.

Soon after its completion, Wilson received a letter from George Carroll, the Superintendent of Schools, asking politely but pointedly for more detailed information about what Wilson had planned for the south wall. Carroll reminded the artist that the murals, by mutual agreement, were intended “to represent the objective toward which we are striving in carrying out our educational program.”

Is it possible that some disgruntled parent had asked, “When did homo-eroticism become part of the curriculum?” Could the school principal have received an irate note saying it was out of line for a public school to advocate liberation for factory workers?

Because he was not being paid for his work, Wilson sometimes expressed resentment that he had to satisfy anyone other than himself. At the same time, he realized he was operating under the significant constraint of needing permission to use public walls as his surface. Wilson was no prototype graffiti artist, and his socialist principles didn’t extend to appropriating private property for the aesthetic and intellectual improvement of the general population.

Wilson responded to Carroll’s letter with a rather lengthy explanation – one that allows a first impression of being based on sound artistic principles, but also seems like a description he was making up as he went along. Wilson had several causes to support, injustices to draw attention to, and inspirational figures to immortalize.

In the center of the mural is Professor William T. Turman, who retired as Head of the Department of Penmanship and Drawing at Indiana State Normal School in 1934 and for whom the art gallery at Indiana State University is named. In his correspondence with Wilson, Turman is extravagant in his praise, and on one occasion, addresses him as “my dear son.” In his letter, Wilson didn’t tell Carroll that Turman was his model, he simply described the man as having a “kindly visage.” This seems complimentary; however, it’s followed by the claim that the man represents “that great placid majority of people who can still remain apart, untouched by the confusion of the changing times” which certainly makes him seem out of touch. Turman had been successful as a landscape painter, winning several awards in the Hoosier Salon, and while Wilson no doubt respected the older man’s talent, he probably felt the lack of social consciousness in Turman’s work was a major weakness.

Wilson, regardless of what the public school program might have been, wanted to insert politics into his work. He said, “I despise murals that are merely decorative…I want to manage some way to express the forces of social change, aligning my interests and sympathy on the side of the working class.”

In the mural, this is demonstrated by orderly ranks of organized laborers marching. The working man is also represented by a farmer plowing. Wilson used the janitor at the school who collected chalk for him as the model for this figure, and said he “personifies that infinitely precious element of humankind that can still find contentment only in the soil.”  There are also laboratory research workers – again incorporating the figure of Dr. Fred Donaghy.  Wilson’s high school biology teacher, Sallie Dawson, is the woman teaching the lesson in pollination.

The young sculptor depicted working in the mural represents Wilson himself, and the older man in the carving is George Krietenstein, a local businessman. As revealed in letters, Krietenstein was another subject of Wilson’s homoerotic longings, a fact which clearly upset the Boy Scout leader.

Scouting, strongly illustrated in the mural, was a movement Wilson had been involved with for 15 years. Typically, he had an idealized view of what the organization should be, and a feeling he was entitled to criticize its practices when they failed to jibe with these ideals. He wrote to a national official of the Boy Scouts, “I have felt a growing disturbance in my mind over certain elements of the Boy Scout program, the salute, the regimentation, and especially the militaristic nature of the uniforms and insignia. It seems to smack too much of the subtle intention to keep alive in the mind of youth the glory of the soldier and war…. These are treacherous principles on which scouting rests all too reproachably.”

War, of course, plays a central role in the mural.  A newspaper announcing the declaration of war is thrust into a young man’s face by a hand wreathed with diamond cuff links, while the other hand holds a small tattered American flag, and ranks of helmeted soldiers recede into the distance. Up from these ranks rise four soldiers representing different races and turning their bayonets upon two munitions makers. Boy Scouts of the same four races, with hands joined, echo the figures of the soldiers. Wilson may have been trying to convey the brotherhood of scouting as an alternative to conflict, but he also reinforces the militaristic nature of scouting that he finds repugnant.

In the top-center of the mural, Wilson created a large Roman face flanked by masked men of wealth with a man surrounded by radio microphones in the foreground. Wilson had recently come to realize how easily the “public was hoaxed” by the propaganda of Father Coughlin and Huey Long. He felt there was  “imminent danger, today, of a fascist dictatorship taking control.”

Concluding his description in the reply to Superintendent Carroll, Wilson promises, “Other elements, which have not yet been worked into the composition, are to show how technological advances are sabotaged by profit motives of an excess nature, also how education along social lines is thwarted thru fear of being considered radical.”

Was all this agreeable to Carroll? Did he find it an acceptable representation of the Terre Haute public schools’ objectives  in 1935? Wilson saved no further correspondence with him in response, but the mural exists as described, so apparently no change was called for. George Carroll must have been willing to stick out his neck and support free speech even in a radical form.

One important aspect of education is simply giving people something to think about, and Wilson certainly accomplished that. Labor issues, income inequality, militarism fostered by corrupt capitalism and dangerous propaganda seem like topics that would be useful in the school curriculum today.

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